My article for the September Crossways newsletter for St Paul’s Church Spennymoor and Whitworth Church.
‘… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us …’ (Hebrews 12:1).
Dealing with COVID-19 will be ‘a marathon, not a sprint’.
One of many people to have said these words was the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, speaking to the House of Commons on 11 February. Now, more than six months later, I think we all realise what he meant. True, things aren’t as bad as they were, and there are many things we can enjoy and be thankful for. But it still feels as if we’ve got a long, long way to go.
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews speaks of a ‘race’ we need to ‘run with perseverance’. But the race it describes is not the fight against a virus or anything like that. It’s actually speaking about the ordinary Christian life. Simply being a Christian can be something really, really difficult – something that requires effort and endurance, courage and determination. How can that be?
Looking at the rest of the letter, it seems that the Christians who received it were tempted to give up being Christians. They were probably Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But this was making life difficult for them. Most of the Jews hadn’t put their trust in Jesus. And this made the Jewish Christians into outcasts – rejected by their own people. Life would be so much simpler if they just left Jesus behind and went back to how things were before.
It can be tempting for us to give up being Christians. It’s hard enough keeping up our family relationships at the moment. Do we really have room for church relationships on top of that? Church services aren’t what they used to be, and they might not be doing much for us at the moment. Why not just sit it out for a few months, or a year, or … But then how likely are we to take it up again?
Why should we continue to ‘run the race’ of following Jesus? The letter gives us three encouragements.
The first encouragement is that Jesus has already finished the race! The end is in sight, and it’s worth it! We run the race, ‘fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2). Just think of the joy that awaits us at the finish line!
The second encouragement is the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1). Jesus isn’t the only one who has finished the race. The previous chapter of the letter gives us countless examples of people in the Old Testament who have persevered in running the race. Reading their stories can encourage us to persevere too. Why not have a look at Hebrews 11, and then try to find their stories in the Old Testament?
In addition, there are countless Christians who have run the race in the centuries since the New Testament was written. We can read their stories too. Why not have a look on 10ofThose.com for books about the Christian life: personal testimonies, church history, or biography? Or head down to Barnard Castle and check your eyesight (sorry, couldn’t resist!) by looking for something similar in the wonderful Book Aid second-hand Christian bookshop (10 Galgate)?
One book I found recently was Corrie ten Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place. It tells her story of life during the Second World War, first sheltering Jews in Amsterdam, and then persevering in her faith despite being arrested and sent to a concentration camp. It wasn’t always easy reading, but her story has helped me to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’.
The third encouragement is that God has good things he wants to give us during the race itself. It takes many months of hard discipline if you want to run a marathon. But the discipline is worth it. And the hard sweat of living the Christian life is similar. The hardships we experience can help us to grow closer to God. So ‘God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it’ (Hebrews 12:10-11).
As we persevere in running the race over the coming months, we will need each other’s support and encouragement. So, ‘let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together’ – in church services or in twos and threes and small groups, in person or by phone or online, wherever and however we can – ‘but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10:24-25).